With around 40 per cent of the population still using thumb impressions to get benefits of development schemes and the internet penetration rate as low as 22 per cent in Bihar, the BJP’s thrust on conducting the upcoming assembly elections online has triggered a political storm in the state. The upcoming assembly polls in the state are scheduled for October-November this year.
The political situation has suddenly escalated after senior BJP leader and Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi put forward the idea of conducting the elections online, citing the issue of social distancing in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is certain that the elections cannot be held in the conventional manner owing to the corona pandemic. I see a paradigm shift in ways elections will be fought in the future,” Sushil Modi has been telling the local media for the past three days. He said that many countries have already held elections online and if the Election Commission too develops such mechanisms, voters may not have to rush to polling booths to cast their votes.
In the same vein, he said that poll campaigns could also go entirely digital post the COVID-19 scare and the conventional methods of holding massive election rallies, public meetings and mega roadshows could become a thing of the past. That means elections will be fought through the digital medium.
“Today every house in Bihar has a television set and all villages are getting 18-20 hours of power. So connecting with the masses is so easy now,” he observed, adding that his party had already gone digital, and been holding meetings with its leaders and workers through video-conferencing or audio sessions.
But such “unsolicited suggestions” by the BJP has left the Opposition highly suspicious. They see in it a larger conspiracy to deprive the common, poor, Dalit and helpless voters, who account for a huge portion of the total voters, the opportunity to join the poll process.
According to them, the Dalits, the poor and the migrant labourers who went jobless after the COVID-induced lockdown and have been returning home on foot, in crowded trucks, tractor trollies, hiding inside concrete mixer drums or by cycles, would not be able to join the poll process if it goes online.
More than 20 lakh migrants have already returned to Bihar and want to settle scores with the government for not taking note of their grievances. And a majority of them don’t own smartphones, have no access to internet, are not comfortable with technology or just don’t know how to use them. That’s why they had failed to register with the government for train tickets and had to return home on foot or pay exorbitant fares to trucks, said the Opposition. Shifting to online voting and campaigning will, thus, mean keeping these voters away from the poll process, the opposition leaders allege.
“A huge population of Bihar still live in villages, is illiterate, doesn’t own smartphones with internet facility and is just not comfortable with technology. That means they won’t be taking part in the poll process if polling is held online,” commented state CPI(M) secretary Awadhesh Kumar. He said the debates for online polling by the BJP are part of the strategy to pressurise the EC and deny the deprived and marginalised section of the society the opportunity to exercise their franchise.
A latest research by the McKinsey & Company’s office in India and the McKinsey Global Institute too presents a horrible picture of the existing internet scenario in Bihar. According to a latest research titled “Digital India: Technology to transform a connected nation”, the digital penetration and the GDP per capita are strongly correlated.
“States on the top third of GDP per capita levels, such as Haryana, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu together with small, highly urbanised states and union territories of Chandigarh, Delhi and Goa, have the highest internet penetration, ranging between 28 per cent in Uttarakhand to more than 170 per cent in Delhi,” says the report.
The states in the bottom third of the GDP per capita, like Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, are among those having the lowest penetration rate – 22 per cent in Bihar and equal in Jharkhand, reveals the report published in March last year. It explains that 78 per cent of the population in Bihar still have no access to internet. Given the situation, shifting to online polling will simply be a denial of justice to a huge section of the society.
The CPI(ML), another prominent Left party, alleged the move is an attempt to snatch the voting rights of the poor and the Dalits who have been vocal against the government and want to settle scores for backing out of their poll promises.
“The BJP has been trying hard to conduct elections online to prevent the poor, the deprived and the Dalit community from participating in the poll process, but we will oppose it tooth and nail,” state CPI(ML) secretary Kunal said. He said that only a small section of the poor own smartphones, but the majority are not aware about using technology.
He said that in a democracy, equal opportunities should be provided to every party so that no one could question the authenticity of the poll outcome.
“But we notice a very serious trend these days. The poor, the Dalits and the migrant workers were totally ignored by the Indian government during the lockdown, and left to fend for themselves since they are not the voters of the BJP. We think this was done to bring them to their knees and face the consequences of voting against them. So we see a larger conspiracy in the idea of online polling,” Kunal said.
Away from their concerns, the BJP has already started digital campaigns in the state and is connecting the leaders through video-conferencing at regular intervals. Of late, the BJP has strengthened its base on digital platforms by forming thousands of WhatsApp groups and also reaching out to people through Facebook.
A BJP leader said that the party’s IT cell currently has 50,000 members working towards expanding the party’s base through social media. The IT cell has been functioning in all the 243 assembly constituencies of Bihar.
“We have been working hard to expand our party base though social media. Although people are not very techno-friendly, BJP’s Bihar unit has reached out to a large number of people in the state. Currently, we have 1.35 lakh followers on Twitter and 3.5 lakh followers on Facebook, while several lakhs are connected with us through our more than 20,000 WhatsApp groups with various names,” said BJP official Manish Pandey. So, the BJP has every reason to feel elated if the poll is conducted online.